Will Peace Have A Chance In The Middle East? – OpEd


The basic elements of peace

The whole world seems to agree on the broad outlines of an agreement: 

  • The return of territories conquered in 1967 and the creation of a viable Palestinian state; 
  • The division of Jerusalem according to the principle “what is Jewish to Israel, what is Arab to Palestine’’; and 
  • The settlement of the problematic issue of refugees. 

However, a solution only seems possible if the actors take into account the insurmountable limits of each, the red lines of the adversary: the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees for Israel; the perpetuation of control of the mosque plaza by Israel, for the Palestinians. As for the possibility of a binational state, it remains impossible in the eyes because it would open the door to civil war and apartheid. Those who, in Europe or elsewhere, favor this “solution” are irresponsible.

Perhaps never in history has there been such agreement on the inevitable outcome of a conflict: public opinion on the spot is ready for the necessary compromises, most of the political classes too and the international consensus, embodied by the quartet (EU, Russia, UN, United States), is absolute. And yet, nothing happens, essentially because of the intrinsic weakness of the parties, which makes them incapable of resolving the conflict between them on their own: Palestinian weakness, illustrated by the latent civil war between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas government in Gaza; and Israeli weakness, due to a political system incapable of achieving a stable majority.

To allow a resumption of dialogue, the US must reinvest in the establishment of a peace process. Europe should have its full place in the negotiations for several reasons. First of all because of its geographical proximity to the United States, which is particularly far from the problem, then because of its historical participation in the situation and finally, because it constitutes a significant economic weight in the region. Indeed, Europe remains the main commercial partner of the State of Israel and at the same time, the main donor of the Palestinian government.

To answer a very simple question: Is peace still possible? We can answer in the affirmative, however, we put forward three conditions: 

  1. Move towards each other with a real desire to understand each other; 
  2. Recognize the right to self-determination against all logic of unilateralism; and
  3. End the occupation.

Two fundamental points must be taken into consideration to understand the current situation. Firstly, the rise of a new political subject in Palestine, Hamas. Secondly, the new Israeli policy clearly committed to a massive colonization in the West Bank in violation of the Oslo accords.

From Oslo to Geneva, many unfulfilled peace plans

Facts As the war rages on in Gaza, peace seems so far away. Yet, on several occasions since 1990, Israelis and Palestinians have attempted to reach an agreement, first in Oslo, then at Camp David and Taba. These initiatives have stalled on issues such as border demarcation and the status of Jerusalem.

After the Hamas attacks which left 1,400 victims in Israel, Tel Aviv launched a bombing campaign against the Gaza Strip which has already killed more than 8,000 Palestinians. On both sides, the majority of victims are civilians. Peace has never seemed so far away.

However, on several occasions over the past three decades, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have met to negotiate peace agreements, under the aegis of the United States or the international community.

The most famous are the Oslo Accords, embodied by the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. Several other peace plans were proposed but did not come to fruition. They particularly stumble over the right of return of Palestinian refugees or the status of the holy places in Jerusalem.

The Oslo Accords: Following the first Intifada and after the Gulf War, Israel and the Palestinians accepted the principle of secret discussions in Oslo, Norway, in 1991. In September 1993, the two parties signed a declaration of principles in Washington, establishing a mode of negotiations and laying the basis for temporary Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza over five years.

Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), accepted Israel’s right to exist in peace and security. The Israeli government, led by Yitzhak Rabin, recognizes the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

In May 1994, the Palestinian Authority was created, with limited powers. The West Bank was divided into three territories with distinct statuses, pending the conclusion of negotiations. The Palestinian Authority only exercises complete sovereignty over Area A, which includes the major cities of the West Bank. It has partial control over zone B, while the Israeli army retains domination of zone C (60% of the West Bank), where the Jewish settlements are located.

The settlement of the most contentious points is postponed for three years: the right of return of Palestinian refugees from 1948, the status of Jerusalem, Israeli colonies in the Occupied Territories, the drawing of borders, water and the demands of security of Israel.

Meanwhile, positions harden on each side. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a far-right Israeli student. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, opposed to the recognition of Israel, carried out suicide attacks to bypass the agreements. When the second Intifada broke out in September 2000, the Oslo Accords were stillborn.

The summits of Camp David II and Taba: In July 2000, Yasser Arafat, President of the Palestinian Authority, and Ehud Barak, Israeli Prime Minister, met at Camp David in the United States. The negotiations stumbled over Israel’s territorial demands in the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem and the holy sites, and the question of Palestinian refugees. The two parties part ways without finding a compromise but nevertheless agree on the principle of refraining from actions that would hinder future agreements.

Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak met again in January 2001 in Taba, Egypt, again under American mediation. During the negotiations, according to an unofficial European Union report, Israel agreed to territorial concessions, including the creation of a Palestinian state covering 97% of the West Bank and Gaza. The two sides also agreed on Jerusalem as an “open city” (Corpus separatum), with Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods and Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods. Concessions were also made on both sides regarding the return of Palestinian refugees and the alert posts in Palestinian territory demanded by Tel Aviv.

Yasser Arafat’s condemnation of Israel’s “fascist” aggression against the Palestinian people, followed by the election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister, hampered the continuation of negotiations.

Parallel initiatives:The Taba negotiators met again in Geneva, where in December 2003 they signed a document known as the “Geneva Initiative”. This provided for the sharing of sovereignty over Jerusalem, the capital of both states, the evacuation by Israel of 98% of the West Bank (including most of the settlements) and the Gaza Strip, and compensation for Palestinian refugees. However, while the Palestinian Authority supports the agreement, neither Ariel Sharon nor Hamas does.

In the spring of 2003, a quartet comprising the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia proposed a “roadmap” for a phased settlement of the conflict. Phase I aims to put an end to terrorism and normalize life for the Palestinians; Phase II provides for the creation of an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders; Phase III envisages the end of the conflict, including a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon and between Israel and Syria.

An Arab Peace Initiative – a Saudi project adopted by the Arab League – was also launched in 2002. It is based on UN Security Council resolutions.

All these unfinished peace plans are based on a two-state solution which, thirty years after Oslo, has never managed to take hold.

What price for peace?

I remain convinced of the need to combat four main dangers:

  1. The risk of collapse of the Palestinian Authority;
  2. A policy of “double standards” to demand reciprocity;
  3. A regional situation in which Iran’s influence could pollute the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians; and
  4. French and European policy in the region is too timid. Israelis and Palestinians urgently need a comprehensive negotiated agreement based on clear, well-defined principles. The Geneva Accords would be a good basis for resuming negotiations. The logic of war and conflict cannot lead the two sides to peace.

A comfortable “status quo” for Israel

While the situation for Palestinians has worsened in recent decades, the peace process has brought benefits to Israelis. Israeli governments have sometimes paid lip service to the peace process, deflecting much of the international criticism of Israel’s actions on the ground – making the reality of occupation and inequality seem merely a “temporary situation”, pending a future peace agreement. The structures put in place by the Oslo Accords, namely the PA and its security services, which closely coordinate their actions with those of the Israeli authorities, have also considerably improved the security of Israelis (and settlers).

The recent wave of announcements of normalization between Israel and the Arab states (Abraham Accords) has reinforced the feeling, prevalent among Israeli Jews, that the world and its immediate Arab neighborhood are moving in their direction, to the detriment of Palestinian aspirations. According to Netanyahu, the agreement with the UAE has confirmed the principle of “peace through strength“: “According to this doctrine, Israel is not obliged to withdraw from any territory and, together, the two countries reap the rewards of total peace “. 

Given the relatively low political and security costs of an indefinite occupation, only a minority of Jewish Israelis see conflict resolution as a priority. Faced with a choice between maintaining the existing reality and de-occupation, a majority of Jewish Israelis prefer continuity to change. As a result, instead of debating how best to end the five-decade occupation, the debate in Israel focuses on how best to deal with the Palestinians to avoid the demographic threat of a one-state solution.

Today, there are broadly two schools of thought that reflect a majority of Israeli political and public opinion. Neither advocates a two-state solution based on international parameters, or on significant territorial withdrawal.

A first school of thought, embodied by some members of the right like Netanyahu, security officials and center-left politicians like Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, favors the current “status quo“, i.e. unlimited security control, as the best way to manage the conflict. This has been the dominant trend since the beginning of the occupation, and aims to preserve a degree of ambiguity in the status of the West Bank, avoiding any move towards formal Israeli annexation, or towards a Palestinian state. Some adherents sometimes speak of the need to separate from the Palestinians, or of the principle of “two states for two peoples”, in which Israel would retain exclusive control of Jerusalem and much of the West Bank. Through their actions, notably by allowing the continued growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, this school has progressively eroded the feasibility of a two-state solution.

A second school of thought supports practical measures to enforce Israeli sovereignty through the de jure annexation of all or part of the West Bank. This vision represents a more direct threat to the two-state solution, and is supported by a younger generation of right-wing politicians, such as Israel’s ex-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. In such a scenario, most Palestinians living in the OPT would be denied Israeli citizenship.

The new Israeli government is a mixture of these two schools. Bennett has been an ardent supporter of the settlement project, and has previously argued for formal annexation of Area C. These positions are shared by other right-wingers in his government. In contrast, the centrist Lapid seems to favor the continuation of the current model of occupation, stating in the past that he would seek US approval to continue building in the main Israeli settlement blocs. The small progressive Meretz party is perhaps the only Jewish party that still supports a traditional two-state solution, while Labor is somewhere in between.

Given its mix of ideological positions and fragile unity, the Israeli government will have little room to maneuver on such a contentious issue. In practice, this will likely result in maintaining the current status quo of gradual annexation as the default policy. The continuing evolution of the situation on the ground (October 7 events), and within Palestinian politics, could, however, force the government to address the conflict.

Israel-Palestine: Is peace impossible?

75 years after the UN partition plan, peace seems unattainable between Israelis and Palestinians, against a backdrop of continued settlement on the West Bank and the unlikelihood of a two-state solution. US President Donald Trump’s historic decision on December 5, 2017 – in a break with his predecessors – to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has aroused the ire of Hamas in Palestine, which is calling for a “new intifada”. Negotiations, at a standstill for three years, are compromised. East Jerusalem, occupied and then annexed by Israel in 1967, is claimed by Palestinian leaders as the capital of the state to which they aspire. For its part, Israel claims all of Jerusalem.

Peace can only be achieved through the application of international law, which must put an end to one of the last colonial acts of the 21st century. This must include:

  • Recognition of the State of Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem, along the June 4, 1967 line;
  • Implementation of UN resolutions, in particular article 11 of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 adopted on December 11, 1948, concerning the return of refugees; and
  • Respect for international conventions on human rights.

It is the recognition of the Palestinian people on their land, and of their right to self-determination and equal rights, that will enable the peaceful construction of Palestinian and Israeli societies.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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